Ride Along with a Charlotte Animal Care & Control Officer
The first call of the day for Officer Chris Meyer was about a small black dog tied to a tree. It was a sunny day in the middle of June, and neighbors were concerned that the dog was unattended and outside for too long. Driving an animal care van along a Derita neighborhood street, Meyer saw the dog tied to a tree with a red rope.
By the time Meyer turned the white van around and parked, the dog had disappeared. Meyer got his catch pole and walked to the front door, where he met a man who spoke Spanish. Meyer worked with a phone and a translator to explain that the dog needed a tether of at least 10 feet, with food, water and shade.
The dog, a pit bull mix, also needed a rabies tag. Meyer explained that free rabies shots were available at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department’s Animal Care & Control center – located near the airport – on the second Saturday of every month. The officer entered information for the dog, the address, the owner and the visit in the Animal Care & Control database, and drove away.
His next call, in Huntersville, was about a flock of ducks.
Meyer, who’s been an officer for two years, explained that his organization has changed significantly in the last 20 years. They’re no longer the dogcatchers caricatured in movies like “Lady and the Tramp,” “Homeward Bound” and “On the Secret Life of Pets.”
“My understanding of our history is, it was more of a kill shelter: go out and pick up animals, there’s no owner, and most likely the animal would be put down. Certain breeds would be put down,” Meyer said. “Over the course of 10 years, it’s turned into a model of re-homing, re-socializing dogs and getting them fostered or adopted.”
Meyer summarized some of the division's key programs. A Staycation program enables people to do a compatibility trial visit with a pet for up to five days. In addition to rabies shot clinics, the center offers $10 microchipping and free registration into local and national databases. New grants help with many issues. For families who lack financial resources, the Human Animal Support Services program can sometimes provide free or reduced cost dog food, fences, shelters and veterinarian care. Social media channels feature photos of adoptable pets.
Melissa Knicely, communication director for the division, explained that in 2005, the center had a 30% live release rate, meaning only 30% of animals in the center were released alive and 70% were euthanized. In 2020, they hit a 90% release rate, and the rate now hovers in the high 80s.
Crazy Animal Stories
“This place is the definition of ‘You can’t make this up,’ said Justin Morrison, an animal care officer for more than seven years. Morrison has dealt with elephants fighting in a convenience store parking lot, a possum in a kitchen drawer, roosters terrorizing a city government parking lot with bells on their ankles, a boa constrictor at a bus stop and an extremely naughty miniature horse named Darryl.
“Horses are the definition of habitual offenders,” Morrison said. “If an animal is going to get itself in trouble, it’s going to be a horse. Darryl and his grandma, an actual full-grown horse, would get loose from the property they lived at, and they would run through the woods and be in the backyard of someone’s house just tearing it up.”
Education and Advocacy
Morrison explained that dogs are legal property valued at $1,000, and an officer who improperly removes a dog from someone’s home could be charged with a felony. Officers now view themselves as advocates for animals and educators of pet owners. They do a lot of explaining state laws and local ordinances on animal restraints and animal care practices.
Knicely listed three fundamental components of the organization’s mission. They try to ensure that pets are prepared and available for foster homes, which frees up space at shelters; that pets can be reunified with their owners, which requires collar identification tags, microchips and registration; and that pets can stay with their families.
“That’s really one of our big community outreach pushes,” she said. “There’s a lot of reasons that pets get turned in: for financial reasons, because they don’t have a good fence or whatever it is.” Animal care officers then work to identify solutions and resources to ensure pets stay with owners.
Pit Bulls Are Charlotte’s Most Popular Breed
A walk through the center’s adoption area reveals that the most common breeds are American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers and Bull Terriers, known commonly as pit bulls. Knicely explained that pit bulls are sometimes a challenge to adopt out. Living in an animal control kennel creates stress for them, and they don’t show well.
“If they show that way, they’re going to sit here, and the longer they sit here, the worse their behavior deteriorates,” she said, adding that getting out of the kennel improves their behavior.
How Residents Can Help Animals
Mecklenburg County residents can help animals by volunteering, providing foster homes, providing donations, and simply being good neighbors, Morrison said. Help doesn’t always need to come from animal care officers. If a neighbor’s dog needs water, residents can gently point that out to the owner, Morrison said.
Officer Meyer said he would like Animal Care & Control officers to be regarded as first responders. They are the first to respond to calls about injured and sick animals, animal neglect, and irresponsible or ignorant behavior by people.
“It’s us that are going out there,” he said. “We should be treated the same.”